Disruptions in Technology: Active and Passive Learning as Technological Constructs, James E. Willis, III

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Friday, January 24th, 2014

I suspect somewhere along the educational way, we decided that ‘active learning’ (1) and ‘passive learning’ were air-tight philosophical constructs that helped us describe what occurs at that seminal moment when an inexperienced student learns. This is evidenced quite clearly, I believe, in our educational vernacular and fashionable syntax (2). And, I’d like to add for the record, they may be absolutely spot-on as descriptors of learning.

But, how do we know? In recent years there have been compelling studies demonstrating the effectiveness of active learning across a multitude of disciplines (3). In most (perhaps all) sectors of education, there are countless initiatives underway to promote active learning. These are, arguably, well-spent dollars that will help today’s and tomorrow’s student in many ways. What I’m interested in, though, are the underpinnings of such developments. This is not to question the veracity of such methods, but rather to question why they are so prevalent, perhaps with the ambitious goal of stating how to push the research a bit further. Even the most sophisticated definitions of active and passive learning take on nuances that can be difficult to tease apart. Is it possible that active and passive learning simply are the very best way we have right now to convey something that is actually quite more complex?

As a thought experiment, I wonder if it’s possible that the rise of our technologies contributed significantly to the awareness of active and passive learning models? I find it a bit ironic that the popularization of active learning began at about the same time (4) as the onslaught and proliferation of personal computing devices. Did technology awaken us from the 800-year old practice of professors standing in the front of the classroom lecturing while students sat, taking notes? Technology has always been the harbinger of change in human living. Whether primitive farming tools, mass transportation advances, or microprocessors that many of us now carry in our pockets, technology has been at the root as a change agent. The question, then, becomes whether our educational methods and delivery are also advancing at the same pace.

Preliminarily, I propose that learning is certainly aided by technology, but I have to wonder if this is just the start to unraveling what we think we mean by student learning. Perhaps the complexities of emotional, physiological, and attitudinal processes that intertwine in learning may be further investigated by and for technological advancement.

(1) Most sources agree that defining ‘active learning’ is difficult at best. The University of Minnesota defines it “…as an approach to instruction in which students engage the material they study through reading, writing, talking, listening, and reflecting. Active learning stands in contrast to ‘standard’ modes of instruction in which teachers do most of the talking and students are passive.” The Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan defines “[a]ctive learning…[as] a process whereby students engage in activities, such as reading, writing, discussion, or problem solving that promote analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of class content.”
(2) For an interesting, albeit unscientific, measurement, when I entered “active learning” as a search topic in Google Scholar on 1/16/14, I found 244,000 books and articles.
(3) See, for example, Michael, J. (2006). Where’s the evidence that active learning works? Advances in physiology education, 30(4), 159-167.
(4) Bonwell and Eison’s 1991, Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom is often credited as the text that popularized active learning. This is debatable, of course, especially when considering the influence of previous work in Bloom’s Taxonomy and Chickering and Gamson’s 1987, “Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education.”

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